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Never let it be said that Joe Fugere, owner of Seattle’s Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria, won’t move heaven and earth, or even a pizza oven, to create delicious, perfectly baked pizza for a customer, particularly when that customer is Barak Obama.
During President Obama’s 2012 visit to Seattle, Fugere arranged for a 4,000-pound portable wood-fired pizza oven to be trucked to Boeing’s Paine Field, 25 miles north of Seattle, where Air Force One was parked. His team then prepared authentic, VNP-certified (Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana) pizza for the president, his staff, flight crew and press corps—about 60 people in all.
Fugere had met with President Obama a few years earlier to discuss economic issues facing small businesses. When he was invited to the White House for the signing of the 2010 Small Business Jobs Act, the president remarked that he’d like to try a Tutta Bella pizza someday. Fugere tried to arrange a lunch stop during the 2012 visit, but the president’s schedule was too full.
So Fugere brought the pizza to the president. Since Neapolitan pizza does not travel well, he transported the oven and his staff to prepare the pizza on the tarmac. It was such a great hit that this spring, Vice President Biden showed up to eat pizza at Tutta Bella’s Westlake location.
Going the extra mile is how Fugere runs his company which is built around sharing traditions and authentic food. “Much of the world does not think highly of restaurant employees,” he said. “It’s considered the low rung on the totem pole. But I view restaurants, with the food they serve and the people they employ, as being a key thread in the fabric of our society. It’s a place where you interact with people from all walks of life, where the concept of service still exists. Just look at the critical role that restaurants play in our communities when there is a disaster.”
The importance of community is a concept that resonates deeply with Fugere. A fourth-generation Italian-American, his great grandparents arrived in 1911 from Calabria. They lived in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, called “Garlic Gulch” at the time because it was home to so many Italian immigrants.
“My grandparents liked to garden and cook,” he said. “We had fig trees, apricot trees. Everything we needed was right there in the neighborhood: We went to the Italian bakery for our bread, the butcher for our meats, the dairy barn for our milk.”
Fugere obtained a business management and hospitality degree, studying hotel and restaurant management. Drawn to Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympics, he worked in the hotel industry for two years then moved back to Seattle. Following a stint at Starbucks that included national food manager, he left to pursue something more “personally meaningful.” That eventually led to the creation of the first Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria in 2004.
“At that time, there was no certified authentic Neapolitan pizza in the Northwest,” he said. “We were the first to source our ingredients, build the proper wood-fired oven, and obtain the coveted VPN certification.” To obtain the VPN designation, businesses must adhere to traditional methods and follow precise rules, from the preparation of raw ingredients to cooking in an approved oven. Strict regulations set by the Italian government for ingredients—flour, salt, yeast, tomatoes and fresh herbs—must also be met.
In order to explore pizza-making at the source, Fugere apprenticed as a pizzaiolo in Naples for a month, taking notes on what products they used and how they made their pizzas. Today, Tutta Bella operates five pizzerias in and around Seattle and employs 250 people.
One of the most exciting benefits of working at Tutta Bella is the company’s biannual cultural immersion tour. Every other year since 2005, Fugere has taken five or six employees to Italy to meet his suppliers, see firsthand the importance of food in daily life, and experience Italian culture up-close. Participants are chosen by tenure and the company covers all costs for the 10-day trip. For some, it is not only their first trip to Europe but the first time on an airplane.
For Fugere, it’s a way to give back and share the fond memories he retains from his first trip to Naples. It’s also an educational and cultural eye-opener. “Our trips have three components,” he said. “First, we trace the path of our ingredients back to their origins. We visit the vineyards, flour mills, even the fields where our tomatoes are grown. Second, we add a cultural piece and visit churches, museums and festivals. And third, we are there to eat pizza. We probably visit three or four pizzerias every day.”
This spring’s cultural excursion included a Tutta Bella chef, two managers, operations director and marketing director. The group visited Caputo Flour, Garofalo Pasta and Acunto Napoli, the Naples-based company that creates the pizzeria’s wood-fired ovens. A visit to Cantele Winery, across the peninsula in Puglia, was also on the agenda.
This emphasis on upholding traditions, whether with employees, Italian suppliers or the greater Seattle community, is what makes Tutta Bella tick. “In Italy, I’m always struck by the longevity of its small businesses, existing generation after generation,” said Fugere. “I want to create that kind of 100-year mentality here. By sharing Neapolitan traditions and nourishing local lives each day, I want my restaurants to thrive long after I’ve gone.” To learn more about Tutta Bella, visit www.tuttabella.com.